AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Beyond Individual Skills: Collective Capacity Building in Nashville
Educators understand that it takes both individual skills and teamwork to improve student achievement, but federal education initiatives like Race to the Top privilege the individual and virtually ignore the collective. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is an example of a district that embraces both practices and is providing lessons about the key drivers of instructional improvement.
Tennessee and Delaware were the two first-round winners of the federal Race to the Top competition. Race to the Top encourages states to adopt rigorous college- and career-ready standards and assessments; use data to inform instruction; develop and evaluate high-quality teachers and leaders based significantly on students’ test scores; and turn around the lowest-performing schools through radical interventions such as replacing teachers and principals, restarting the school as a charter, or school closure. Tennessee has already made drastic educational policy changes to comply with Race to the Top, including introducing a new teacher evaluation system, ending collective bargaining for teachers, and beginning to phase in the new Common Core State Standards.
But Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), the second-largest district in the state, has taken an enhanced approach. MNPS is in the midst of a systemic effort – MNPS Achieves – to transform teaching and learning for every student in every classroom across the district. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform has had the unique opportunity to evaluate MNPS Achieves since its inception in 2009. One area where Superintendent Jesse Register and other district leaders have made significant investments – and are beginning to reap good returns – is in capacity building. Growing great teachers and leaders is a cornerstone of their approach to reform and an example of what Michael Fullan calls a “right driver” for whole-system reform.
Fullan identifies four critical measures to gauge the likelihood that any driver or combination of them can be effective. While MNPS is still in the early stages of implementation, the intent behind the drivers and approach to systemic transformation clearly meet Fullan’s criteria in that they are designed to:
- foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students;
- engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning;
- inspire collective or team work;
- affect all teachers and students – 100 percent.
The capacity-building strategy is certainly not unique to MNPS, but the urgency for Metro Nashville is unique, considering the extremely low academic performance of students and tremendous cultural and ethnic diversity for a district its size. According to districtwide data, students are 46 percent Black, 32 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, and less than 1 percent each Indian and Pacific-Islander. The 79,000 students in Metro Nashville Public Schools represent over 120 different countries and speak more than 100 different languages.
Transforming teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of all of its students is a fundamental challenge for any district; MNPS is developing its teachers and leaders to make that change. Through its Principal Leadership Institute and Teacher Leadership Institute, district leaders have created a foundation for continuous improvement through the capacity building of the most effective teacher and principal leaders. Now entering its fourth year, the bi-annual institute for principals has helped establish a cultural norm and core value for the system: creating dedicated space for collective professional development focused on teaching and learning is the way to improve student achievement. Principals value the three-day opportunity to have a shared space in which to learn from one another outside of scheduled district meetings as much as they appreciate the institute content.
Ultimately, the success of MNPS Achieves lies in building the collective capacity of the people in the school system. Carrie Leana, a professor of business at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the MNPS Achieves National Advisory Panel, found in her study of elementary teachers in New York City public schools that teachers’ “social capital” – that is, their ties with one another – were as valuable as their “human capital” – that is, individual skills and abilities – in impacting student achievement. However, Race to the Top, and by extension, the state of Tennessee, encourages states to evaluate teachers individually through the use of value-added measures.
These kinds of accountability systems, Fullan argues, are a “wrong driver” to start with in educational reform. They set up a tension between the state’s emphasis on individual capacity and the district’s focus on collective capacity. At the recent annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, where AISR’s evaluation findings were presented in one session, districts shared some of the challenges of balancing these tensions. What came up repeatedly in discussion was the difficulty for most districts to develop “collaborative practice in a competitive context.”
To its credit, MNPS is trying to navigate those tensions through embracing the state’s new evaluation system while continuing to build collaborative relationships among its leaders and staff. Fullan sums up plainly the long-term benefits of the approach MNPS has taken:
In short, individual rewards and incentives and other investments do not motivate the masses. If you want to reach the goal faster you must invest in capacity building, and use the group to get there.
Note: AISR’s report on the progress of MNPS Achieves is available here. This year we will focus on understanding the relationship between central office and school staff.
Annenberg Institute for School Reform. 2011. MNPS Achieves Year 2: An Evaluation Report. Providence, RI: Brown University, AISR)
Leana, Carrie. 2010. "Social Capital: The Collective Component of Teaching Quality," Voices in Urban Education 27 (Spring).
 Fullan, Michael. 2011. Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform. East Melborne, Victoria, Australia: Center for Strategic Education.